Today South London, Tomorrow South London – shirk, rest and play south of the river
Wallis and Diana, novel set in Paris and Brighton
2nd November 2017
Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul, novel set in Paris and Brighton. Paperback published 2/11/17.
I read this book around the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana in the Alma Tunnel, 31 August 1997. It was a very apt and poignant read as the book opens with Rachel and Alex driving up just behind the crash scene in the tunnel, leaping out to see if they could be of help and being stunned by the flashes of the Paparazzi, as they photographed a dying woman and her dead beau.
Alex, with eagle eyes, spots a small platinum heart that has fallen out of the car, torn seemingly from a charm bracelet, engraved with the initial J and the Roman Numerals XVII. He snatches it covertly and Rachel puts it to one side in her purse and it is more or less forgotten about.
This dual narrative also takes the reader back to the early 20th Century and to the blossoming friendship between Bessiewallis Warfield, better known in later life as Wallis Simpson, and Mary Kirk. Wallis was the woman who drove the friendship forward, set the rhythm, with Mary seemingly hanging onto her coat-tails; Wallis was a woman very much with verve and wry humour who made it her business to move up the social echelons, away from her relatively humble beginnings. But could she really truly love anyone and give of herself?
It is interesting how Wallis comes across in the narrative, a larger than life character – a woman who would never allow herself to be photographed with her hands on show (they were, she felt, too large); a fascinating story, excellently told. Not, however, terribly likeable, as she seemed to ensnare the heir apparent to the British throne, Edward VIII (a bit of a milksop, by all accounts), and had him grovelling at her feet; compounded by her flirtation with von Ribbentrop and her clear Nazi sympathies. All the while, she was married to Ernest Simpson, who stoically stood by and watched her burgeoning relationship with the soon-to-be King unfold. But through the lens of history has misogyny created a monster of her, I wonder? It is hard to know. Was she perhaps the “most misunderstood woman in history”?
The story of Rachel and Alex is firmly set around the death of Diana in 1997, as Alex seizes his opportunity as a film maker to make a documentary, the conspiracy theories are rife, the monarchy’s response under scrutiny. The author sheds insight into the possible lives of the elite, and beautifully brings together the ménage à trois endured by Ernest Simpson, which is echoed in later years by the on-going relationship between Charles and Camilla, and which proved so painful to Diana. “English kings have always married some fecund young aristocrat to produce an heir and a spare, and taken the women they love as mistress”. Indeed.
Two iconic women, two thorns in the side of the British monarchy, each with their own story. “Two women who challenged a royal dynasty. Divided by time. Bound by a secret…” Highly recommended.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to Gill who shares her Love Affair with Brighton
I first visited Brighton over three decades ago, lured by its reputation as the place London roués would take their mistresses for naughty weekends. It all dates back to the 1780s when the Prince Regent, later George IV, started taking his secret wife, Maria Fitzherbert (twice widowed and a Catholic so the Establishment was never going to let her be queen). It was the setting for affairs in novels and films over the centuries, home to Britain’s first public naturist beach, and along the way became a mecca for the LGBT community. But although linked with sex, it’s not red-light-district seedy; Brighton is all about romance and tolerance and fun.
From the glass- and metal-roofed Victorian station, you can walk straight down the hill to the vast greeny-grey ocean fringed by shingle beach. If you swam due south you’d hit Normandy but I prefer to think of these waters lapping the shores of the far-off Caribbean, Brazil and East Africa. They’re choppy and murky but perfectly clean, and refreshing for a swim on a scorching day.
The architecture along the promenade and in the garden squares that adjoin it is a glorious mish-mash of Regency, Victorian and Edwardian: painted stucco, black wrought-iron balconies and fancy cornices. Many of the grand houses are faded, with peeling paint and weeds growing out of cracks, but that adds to the sense of history. If there are ghosts in these walls, they’d have some great stories to tell.
And then there are the piers, like exclamation marks on the edge of the land: the gaudy amusement-arcades and candy floss of the Palace Pier and the stark blackened etching of the burned-out West Pier. When I first visited, the West Pier was a dilapidated Grade 1 listed landmark, closed to the public but still with talk of developers renovating it. But after two fires in 2003, it became the charred, ghostly ruin you see today, home only to flocks of seagulls that weave and twist around. There’s something Wuthering Heights about it; something otherworldly.
Artists have long flocked to the town, and there are dozens of galleries and arty shops, especially along the famous Laines. You can buy electric guitars, Warhol posters, crystal healing kits and vintage clothes all next-door to each other, then dine in vegan coffee shops with local artists’ etchings and sculptures of wombs for sale.
I love the May Festival, a cornucopia of music, theatre, circus and art, with lots of free events and dancing at the Spiegeltent in the evenings. There are colourful Gay Pride marches every year, and I think I’m right in saying it’s the only UK town to have a Trans Pride festival. Yay!
And this brings me to the main thing I like about Brighton: its open-mindedness. I have a friend with a learning disability who until just over a year ago had lived all his life with his mother in a small English town, where he was often bullied by local teenagers. He had stones thrown at him in the street and a brick lobbed through the front window just because he looked different. When his mother died, his relatives decided to move him to Brighton, to a flat in a sheltered housing block. The move was stressful for him. He is perfectly capable of living on his own but was cautious about finding his way around this new place. But within weeks – and I have tears in my eyes as I write this – the people of Brighton were reaching out to welcome him. There’s a café where the owner always sings to him. The bus drivers stop and patiently explain which bus to catch. The traders in Snoopers’ Paradise, a sprawling vintage, bric-a-brac and art market, give him bargain prices. He’s popular with staff in the library. Within weeks I could see a huge change in his confidence levels. For the first time in decades – perhaps ever – he is actually enjoying life.
When you get the train south from London to Brighton, a peculiar thing often happens. You can leave London in grey drizzle with thick cloud overhead, but after you cross the South Downs, the sun comes out. Clearly it doesn’t happen every time but often enough not to be a coincidence. And it’s how I think of Brighton – as a warm, sunny place full of warm, welcoming people.
Thank you to Gill for sharing such a personal and uplifting story of Brighton and its people!
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